Several Israeli public hospitals announced on Thursday that they would stop accepting ambulances carrying patients that do not require life-saving medical treatment, including coronavirus patients. The announcement comes against a backdrop of a pandemic that is placing unprecedented stress on the medical system, with some 1,169 individuals in critical condition as of Thursday.The move that begins on Sunday – marking the latest development of a struggle between seven public hospitals and the government over public funding – was harshly criticized by Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy, who called the decision invalid. Public hospitals in Israel are independent organizations that rely mostly on donations, as opposed to facilities directly owned and funded by the government or the health funds. The public institutions, which include Hadassah-University Medical Center, currently find themselves in a deep financial crisis.For the past week, their directors have been protesting in front of the Finance Ministry asking to increase the budget their hospitals receive per bed, which is currently about half of what other hospitals receive, according to the organizers.“Due to a severe shortage of equipment and medicine, we inform you that as of Sunday, January 24, at 6:00 a.m., it will not be possible to refer us to any ambulances and patients who are not defined as in need of life-saving treatment, including coronavirus cases,” reads the message sent to Magen David Adom, Israel’s national emergency service, by Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Netanya’s Laniado Medical Center, Bnei Brak’s Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center and three hospitals in Nazareth.“I am aware of the budgetary difficulties you are experiencing, and the minister and I are intensely working on the issue with the Finance Ministry,” Levi responded. “However, we cannot accept a situation where patients are used as a tool in negotiations. Public hospitals are committed to accepting patients who come through their gates. The instructions in the letter you sent to MDA are invalid and do not comply with the procedures of the Health Ministry. Patients will continue to be evacuated to your hospitals as usual.”Levy also said that efforts to solve the budget problems will continue. However a meeting between the hospital heads and representatives of the Finance Ministry on Thursday night ended with no agreement in sight.The confrontation occurred on a day when Israel nonetheless registered some positive data on the pandemic.For the first time in over three months, the virus’ reproduction rate in the country – reflecting the ability of the disease to spread – fell below 1. This means that each infected person is on average infecting less than one other person (0.99).The news prompted coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash to state in an interview with Channel 12 that Israel will not need to further extend the current lockdown that is scheduled to end on January 31, in spite of the morbidity rate remaining high.On Wednesday, some 8,174 new cases were registered, according to the Health Ministry’s report.Some 93,283 tests were administered, with around 9% of them returning a positive result. As of Thursday morning, some 317 patients were intubated. The death toll stood at 4,179, an increase of 37 people from the previous 24 hours.As the numbers of infected people and deaths among the ultra-Orthodox community especially high, the ministry announced the launch of a campaign to sensitize the haredi sector on the risks of the pandemic and the necessity to abide by the rules, since violations of the health guidelines reported in towns and neighborhoods also remain frequent. While the situation in Israel remains serious, the country also continues to vaccinate at a record pace.With some 200,000 people inoculated on both Tuesday and Wednesday, over two and a half million people have received at least the first shot, including 80% of those over 60 year old. In addition, about 800,000 Israelis have already been inoculated twice.While the possibility to get vaccinated is currently restricted to people over 40 – as well as medical staff, teachers and those with pre-existing conditions – the ministry’s committee devoted to advising vaccine prioritization protocols recommended vaccinating high school students age 16-18, as Blue and White ministers requested during the cabinet meeting on Tuesday.“Education must be our top priority,” Blue and White leader and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz said. “After we have ensured that the teachers are vaccinated, we must make sure that the youth can attend their exams and return to the school framework as soon as possible.”The decision was confirmed late Thursday by the Health Ministry, which announced that beginning next week these teens could get the jab. The Health and Education ministries will work together wit the health funds to formulate a logistical plan to promote the student vaccination campaign.
Some experts are also advising to open vaccinations to the general population, including Prof. Galia Rahav, director of the Infectious Diseases Unit at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, and a member of the committee, who said that Israel did not need to restrict its vaccination campaign to targeted groups anymore, as there were enough vaccines for the general adult population.The coronavirus cabinet also approved on Thursday the return of professional soccer and basketball games, provided that coronavirus safety regulations are maintained, the Health Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office announced. Additionally, training facilities will be allowed to open if they are being used for the training of professional athletes or for competitions.Moreover, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that within two weeks, the cultural sector will also be allowed to open.According to reports in Israeli media, his announcement caught health officials by surprise, as it was not discussed with the Health Ministry and does not reflect their plans regarding the exit from the lockdown.